Emerge from the depths of the untamed forest and prepare to answer the call of the wild with Song in the Smoke, out today for Oculus Quest and Rift Platforms for $29.99 USD. This ambitious survival game illustrated by Katsuya Terada puts players in the shoes of a lonesome adventurer tasked with hunting, gathering, and building what they need to solve a prehistoric mystery in a bizarre, fantastical world.
Song in the Smoke uses VR to its full potential, letting players expertly identify threats with sound, sight, and smell. Use the world to your advantage, and stalk your prey from the tall grass. Intuitive VR controls let you line up the perfect shot with your bow, but be sure to listen for creatures that may be hunting you, or else you’ll have to fight for your life with clubs, sticks, or anything else you can get your hands on.
With over a decade of game development experience, the team at 17-BIT is primed to release their debut VR-native experience. To learn more about the game’s development and what makes it such a great fit for VR, we spoke with Jake Kazdal, creative lead and art director on Song in the Smoke.
This isn't a traditional open-world sandbox game, but it's also not a narrative-heavy linear experience either. How would you describe Song in the Smoke to someone who knows nothing about the game?
Jake Kazdal: Song in the Smoke is an interconnected series of small open worlds. There are bits of narrative infused, but the mystery behind those moments is part of what draws you forward. That being said, it is a highly player-driven experience—there are certain goals in each world, but how the player approaches each one is completely that player’s own unique journey.
The first thing people likely notice about Song in the Smoke is the art style. How did you arrive at such a distinct, evocative aesthetic that really stands out, especially when seeing it in VR?
JK: As art director, my job was to find something unique, powerful, and mysterious that worked within the particular constraints of VR. I was heavily influenced by old Disney film backgrounds—particularly the stunning use of shape, light, and color in Bambi, where only what’s important is brought into puddles of light and detail. The rest is allowed to blend together and tell the tale through silhouette and composition.
We wanted the big shapes to read cleanly, and detail to be used sparingly. With the technical limitations of VR being much tighter than that of modern flatscreen games, we were compelled to find something that would hold its visual fidelity even very up-close, as the VR experience literally puts you in the world. You can stick your head anywhere! By relying on a custom toon shader we developed internally, the pixelation of the source normal maps was always delivered cleanly, creating a crisp, original look to our world.
Finally, by relying on character and creature designs from one of the world’s best character designers, Katsuya Terada, we were able to deliver a very fresh take on the “caveman” era/motif—no saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, or other clichés. We wanted this to feel like a unique alternate dimension, lost in time.
What can you tell us about the lore and the setting here?
JK: The player wakes up with no recollection of where they are or what’s happening. Over time, they’re visited by various characters, human and otherwise, who are somehow related but also obviously very different. The mystery of the game is very much up to player interpretation, and we love to leave it that way!
Survival games seem like a natural fit for VR due to the immersion and sense of presence within the digital world. It can really build up tension and desperation unlike a non-VR game. However, it seems like a rare genre for developers to pick. Why do you think that is?
JK: Survival games are almost by definition a series of interdependent systems. These systems need to operate in some kind of harmony—the player needs to be able to survive on the resources of this living world. It takes a massive amount of time, tuning, and patience to make this sort of commitment. VR budgets tend to be much smaller than AAA games, as the market is still new and growing, so the medium isn’t an easy choice to make.
Even for a veteran team like ours, this was a massive undertaking. No matter how much you know about building video games, the rules all changed with the advent of VR. Physical interfaces, a multitude of movement styles, brand-new paradigms in every direction—not only for players to experience, but for the developers to re-invent! As a long-time game developer (23+ years), I can easily say this was the most challenging, interesting, and engaging project I have ever worked on.
The team has been vocal about the game being best experienced as a sort of “slow burn” adventure that you should really take your time with. How does VR amplify that feeling?
JK: This game is all about you as a player being in this world. You can take as much time as you want. Quite often I’ll make a roaring campfire at night and just make my way outside and watch the stars, listening to the sounds of the night. It was our dream to make a world people wanted to spend a lot of time—gorgeous but dangerous. And the magic is making it your own, and spending your time doing the things you want to, really allowing yourself to just let go and become part of this environment. The spatialized audio, the drones of the music, the natural day and night cycles—it all allows you to take your time and really embrace the world you’re in. One of the biggest inspirations for this game was to try to simulate what it feels like to be alone in nature. Every breaking branch, every grunt from the underbrush, every sigh of wind, we wanted to allow the player to experience and explore these stunning natural vistas full of adventure and danger.
Since this is your first VR-native game, what was the most challenging part of its development from a design perspective?
JK: Honestly, the interface was our biggest challenge. We wanted to allow the player to do all the things one does with menus in traditional flatscreen games, but with their own hands: crafting, hunting, traversing, and more. We had to radically reinvent an entire interface, and with all the depth of crafting, hunting, harvesting, and maintaining your gear. It was an on-going process with many iterations over several years. The entire language of melee combat was also a challenge—we took many cues from our favorite arcade games, trying to make something understandable for players, but still very engaging and challenging. A lot of time was spent creating a language for combat expression in this brand-new medium.
What’s your favorite part of the game?
JK: As the creators who have been playing the game daily for several years now, the thrill of never knowing exactly what’s waiting for you out there, or what crazy adventures that day might deliver, is just such a joy. It never gets mundane to playtest—even years in, you could hear people screaming at their desks as something unexpected scared them out of their seats. It’s always a new adventure, and to the developers that is such a gift. Every day is something new, and the world we’ve built to host all these strange creatures and incredible adventures is easily my favorite part.